Editor’s note: Aliya Hall, a sophomore at Godwin Heights High School, is one of two local students who was invited to attend the International Congress of Youth Voices in San Francisco this year. Maeve Wilbourn, a senior at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ City High/Middle School, attended as well. Here, Aliya shares some of the highlights of the experience in her own words. Story coordinated by Bridie Bereza
The International Congress of Youth Voices came to be after the Parkland shooting, when a man named Dave Eggers decided that youth needed an international platform to make their voices heard. This platform was specifically for young writers in writing groups such as The Creative Youth Center in Grand Rapids and 826 National. Here, we could come together and talk about issues like gun control laws, police brutality and bullying. Mr. Eggers and ICYV co-founder Amanda Uhle reached out to the heads of the 826 National and CYC programs and asked them to send two of their best youth writers to the Congress in San Francisco this past August. The head of our local CYC, Mrs. Brianne Carpenter, nominated Maeve Wilbourn of Grand Rapids City High/Middle School and me.
The first night in San Francisco, we went to The Embarcadero waterfront district and had dinner on a boat with Rep. John Lewis. He talked to us about what he does and why it is important to take a stand even if no one else is standing with you.
I heard a lot of inspiring things but the one thing that stood out to me the most was what Congressman Lewis said during his speech on the boat: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, or not just, we have a moral obligation to say something and not to be silent; you have to speak out, lead the way and get in good trouble – necessary trouble.”
For me this means that when there is a problem in the community, school, or world, I have a right to use my voice and stand up for what I believe, even if I am the only one standing.
In addition to Rep. Lewis, I met many inspiring people: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “We Should All Be Feminists”; Chinaka Hodge, poet and writer of “All Power To The People”; Bob Bland, national co-chair of the Women’s March; and Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs, one of the women who spearheaded the Women’s March Organization and the coordinator of Youth EMPOWER!
The Congress was filled with action: We went to City Lights bookstore where some of the youth read their poetry. We went to the San Francisco Library and listened to guest speakers from all over tell about their journeys on becoming who they are today! On the last day we went to the War Memorial and worked on our Youth Manifesto, a declaration of our own political party. Mrs. Brianne, Maeve and I also visited places like Pier 3, Pier 39, Chinatown, and Nourse Theater.
One of the most memorable things from the Congress was meeting youth from all over the world and having a chance to hear their stories and learn what their lives are like. There was a student delegate by the name of Rohnny Vallarta, who shared her story about what it’s like to be homeless. She and her family lived out of a car for two years. She talked about how discourteously the people treated her family and other people who were homeless.
Rhonny said, “It is messed up that you would walk past someone asking you for food or money, or speed walk past them like they will harm you.”
She then went on to talk about how being homeless affected her and her family and how she is overcoming it. As she spoke her voice would shake and she would get nervous and start to breathe heavily. At one point she broke down crying, and at that same moment a tear fell down my face and the faces of many others who were up on stage with her. My heart just went out to her. I could hear all the pain in her voice and the anger that she had when she talked about the mistreatment of the homeless.
I was angry because we as a society take things that seem so simple to us for granted: We complain about the kind of food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we live and more, instead of being grateful that we have a roof over our heads, shoes on our feet, and food in our mouths, never having to worry about where we are going to get our next meal!
At the end of the program I went straight to Rohnny and hugged her tight and said, “Thank you for sharing your story!” She is a high school student who is determined to educate the public in understanding the “why” in why someone is homeless by looking at the factors and issues that lead to homelessness.
I’m using all the lessons I learned at ICYV by bringing them back to Grand Rapids so I can talk to and educate people here about the issues from our world, and bring awareness to problems in our community.